Leonardo Da Vinci did not invent the accordion.
It would have been very cool if he had, however. Imagine: among the almost-possible flying machines, the frightening designs for limb-slicing military contraptions, and the portraits of young women smiling cryptically about something they hadn’t told their husbands, finding the plans for an archetypical ‘cordeen.
Alas, it didn’t happen, though he did come close: he invented an odd instrument called the viola organista, a Rube Goldberg device involving a keyboard that turned a complex assembly of wheels and moved a bow across some strings. A pity he didn’t blow wind across reeds instead.
I found myself musing about such things while I was reading Walter Issacson’s Leonardo DaVinci, a highly acclaimed biography of the great Renaissance thinker, artist, and inventor. And what particularly intrigued me was that in order to accurately paint humanity, which he considered greatest creation of Heaven, DaVinci embarked on a lifelong study of the human body, carrying out more than 150 dissections in gruesome detail. [i] Leonardo looked forward to peeling skin from cadavers, sawing brains, slicing eyeballs, and then having lunch, for he believed that to accurately represent human motions and emotions in his work, he had to understand the underlying structures that made them function.
As I put down the book and strapped myself into my ‘cordeen to practice, I got to thinking, as I am also a great Renaissance thinker. Could it be that in order to play accordion music, the greatest creation of Heaven in which there is no beer, I would need a similar understanding of the beast’s innards? It just made sense. And if it was good enough concept for Leonardo, it surely was good enough for me. I determined to dissect an instrument and descend into the bowels of the ‘cordeen.
Of course, I was not about to take apart my own accordion – the potential of having a handful of parts left over after its reconstruction was just too great — so I sent Igor over to the accordion graveyard (otherwise known as community ‘yard sale’ day) to see what he could dig up.
Igor returned feeling pretty proud of himself, slavering with grunts and excitement as movie Igors are wont to do. Just about every home in town had a yard sale, and it seemed that all the residents were strewing their front yards with junk they no longer wanted, hoping to sell it to neighbors who would keep it until yard sale day next summer. Included in the lawn debris, along with the obsolete game consoles, dented kitchen tools, and framed Elvises-on-Velvet, were numerous ‘cordeen cadavers – four or five different households had tagged abandoned old accordions out on the lawn. Igor chose wisely: a particularly pathetic, musty smelling Sears Roebuck Silvertone ‘student’ instrument (i.e., one designed to discourage progress until the teacher sold you a pricier one) from the 1950s. It was a sad looking affair, just the right size for the Lullaby League and Lollipop Guild, long discarded in the family attic once Little Billy gave up his ‘cordeen for that raucous guitar. Its once gaudy colors had stopped trying, a few keys didn’t work, and a button or two refused to surface. But it was still semi-functional.
It made sound. It was cheap. It was perfect.
Like Dante descending into the Inferno, I am about to enter the Belly of the Beast.
Abandon all Hope, Ye who Enter Here.
OK, where do I start? Right above the keyboard there’s a little plastic panel that frames the register switches. It looks like it’s held into place by a couple of tiny screws. That’s pretty easy – I’ll just use the screwdriver from my eyeglass-repair toolkit. Given that my eyes are near the end of their sixth decade, it takes me some time for me to focus and unscrew the panel, but I manage to carefully remove the screws. I drop them in a little jar I’ve brought for the purpose.
There’s not much to see yet – just a little inch-wide abscess through which I can spy a bunch of metal rods and a little dowel thingy with wings poking out from inside – just where inside I’m not sure. The wingy thingy is apparently the rocker switch for the two registers: when I press one of the wings, it moves downward with a nice little shifting noise. OK, the rocker switch I understand, but not what it controls yet.
More urgent at the moment, I need to find out what these metal rods are for. There’s a flimsy-looking plastic screen across the front – it, too, is held in place with screws. I remove them, place them in the jar, and set the screen aside. And there before me is a bewildering assortment of bent metal rods (fig 1), not one rod straight, and many bent multiple times. Each one emanates from the rear of a key on the keyboard, snakes around to get its aim, and pokes rudely into the butt of a little black plastic rectangle with a hump on its back. On the front of each rectangle is another rectangle of felt, slightly larger than its plastic host. And beneath the felt lurks – a hole! A double hole, really – two empty windowpanes that peer mysteriously inward.
Fig 1. Rods and Wingy Thingy
I press a key – and the assemblage jumps outward. And then epiphany strikes – these things must let the sound out! They are, according to the all-knowing people at Wikipedia, called “pallets.” Unlike the delicate assembly of a piano action, this seems to be a simple lever – press the key and the pallet opens the window. There are 41 of them – one for each key – in three rows, all crammed like Brooklyn commuters into this little space beneath the screen. The middle row has only 5 pallets – the top and bottom have 18 each. For reasons I don’t understand, the C below middle C, then the following F, then, after a skip of an octave, the F above middle C and then the F and C above them are handled in the middle row. If there is a logic to this, I can’t figure it out, but maybe it’s just arbitrary; there’s not much space in a Munchkin accordion, and you do have to stuff them in somewhere. But I do know that if Little Billy threw a tantrum and dashed his Silvertone against the pavement, resulting in a bent rod (on the accordion – not on Billy), it would need to be replaced by an exact duplicate made to cover the same hole. That meant 41 separate rods to be kept in inventory to repair just this one low-end model of instrument. Probably not a wise investment for the local accordion repairman, but a boon to the entrepreneurial teacher: “I’m sorry Billy destroyed his accordion, Mrs. Cordeenma, but it was time for him to upgrade to a more versatile instrument, anyway. This one isn’t worth repairing, and he’s making such wonderful progress.”
There are four pins in the carcass: two on top and two on the bottom. I try to grasp them with my fingers, but the pins are too small. A snub-nosed pair of pliers helps here: it allows me to grasp each pin and very slowly, slowly, slowly ease it out from the plastic cover. As each pin comes free, I drop it in the jar for safekeeping. And as the last pin comes loose, freeing the key and rod assembly from the chassis, I turn it around — and reveal the Holy-of-Holies.
I have discovered the Reed Chamber. I feel like Indiana Jones.
Only it’s curiously uninspiring. There are three assemblies, and they look to be lined up with the 3 sets of holes on the front side. They’re each made of what appears to be a slab of scrap wood inexpertly shaved to fit in the case. And screwed and glued onto the wood, top and bottom, are the reeds. (Figure 2)
Fig. 2: Indiana Jones and the Chamber of Reeds
Well, no….not glued. Waxed. As pointed out on Ike’s Accordion Tuning Info page (isn’t the Internet wonderful?) The unique function of the special accordion wax is to tightly grip the reed plates against the wood. This is absolutely necessary to produce strong bright sound at an accurate pitch. The wax will usually do its job well for only about 20 years or so, after which it gets brittle and starts to crack.[ii]
From what I can tell, there’s not much wax left – and given that this instrument is easily 60 years old, I’m not surprised. But you can’t re-wax your reed plates by grabbing your Shabbos candle and dripping wax on the reeds, no sir. As one Phebe from Carnegie-Mellon University bloggily admonishes us, never substitute anything other than the correct wax mixture (from an accordion supply house) for the wax. Improper wax substitutes have been the cause of reeds breaking loose from the reed blocks in many accordions.[iii]
The correct mixture as sold by my friends at Liberty Bellows is a precise blend of “pure high-grade beeswax and pine rosin”, and sells for five dollars a hunk on Amazon. I have no idea how many reeds you can wax with a single hunk.
But back to the reed plates themselves: each one has a narrow tongue of metal on the left – the tongue is perhaps an eighth of an inch wide and an inch long. That’s what vibrates to make the sound. To its right, a little strip of what might or might not be leather covers a space about as long and wide as the tongue. Not all of the reeds have them, and I think they must have fallen off over time – I doubt anyone performed any surgery on it before me – or if anyone who ever played it noticed a change in the sound.
I’ve heard of “leathers” – seen references to them in accordion ads – but I realize I don’t have the faintest idea of what they do. Once again, Phebe from Carnegie-Mellon arises from Google, sternly wagging her reeds at me:
CAUTION – CAUTION – CAUTION – CAUTION – CAUTION – CAUTION – CAUTION
Having taken an accordion apart at the bellows, if you plan to remove a reed block, be EXTREMELY careful not to catch the leather “skins” on anything, bending them out of shape. The skins are EXTREMELY delicate and affect the sound of the accordion more than any other single item. Simply bending one away from the reedblock can result in that note not playing properly in the future.[iv]
OK…I promise. I won’t touch a thing….but what do they do? After a little more searching (and finding a helpful website that offers an impressive 70% off on “leather accordions”), I discover an answer:
Their function is to prevent bellows air from leaking through the reed vents (slots over which the reed tongues are mounted) not in use. Leathers should close under their own power whenever they are not forced open by air coming through the reed vent behind them.[v]
And what surprises me most is this: There are two on each reed plate – one on the side facing into the reed block and one on the side facing outward, that is, out into the bellows.[vi] The reason behind that is they open and close depending on the direction of the bellows and preventing air leaks.
When the bellows is expanding (bass section moving outward), the reed tongues on the inside of the reed block are in use, as air is drawn into the accordion through any open note valves. The leathers on the inside of the reed block adjacent to those reed tongues close off the adjacent reed vents to prevent air from leaking into the bellows through those vents and through the reed tongues behind them on the outside of the reed block.
When the bellows is being compressed (bass section traveling inward), the air flow is reversed, bringing the reed tongues on the outside face of the reed block into play. In this case the leathers on the outside of the reed block remain closed to prevent air from leaking out past the reed tongues on the inside of the reed block.[vii]
I’m beginning to understand it. I yank open the bellows and it gasps in air – but only over the reeds that have their pallets open by virtue of my having pressed their key. The leathers act as chastity belts, staunchly preventing violation of any reed that hasn’t opened the window. When the bellows shoves back, the reeds and leathers in the other direction take over and the air blasts through the open pallets from the inside.
Now I’m beginning to understand why fancy reeds and leathers are important, not just taking it as an article of faith. Mr. Google helps me learn that reeds made of good steel retain their flexibility longer over years of vibration. High end ‘cordeens may even have custom reeds made of fancy-dan imported Swedish steel, though what makes Swedish steel superior is a mystery to me\. Handmade or tipo a mano reeds (made from sheet steel rather than ribbon steel like the handmade and considered almost …but not quite…as good) respond more quickly than ‘standard’ jobs, and allow you to play your ‘cordeen softly (it can be done.) The reverse is also true: with high-quality reeds, you’ll be able to play loudly and intensely without sounding like Uncle Paul after a beans-and-franks dinner.
Crummy leathers don’t leap to the defense of their associated reed, and that can also lead to the reed responding less quickly. The same thing will happen if your leathers aren’t properly aligned.
But that brings up an interesting point:
Some people pay thousands of dollars extra for accordions with handmade reeds because handmade reeds respond just a bit more quickly at low bellows pressures, significantly improving accordion performance. You may be able to get a similar increase in performance for much less money simply by replacing all your badleathers.[ix]
The autopsy continues. I take my trusty pliers and slowly ease the pins holding the bellows loose from the plastic remains. There are pins on top and pins on the bottom, and as each one comes free, I drop it into the jar.
When you see it with its pants down, the bellows is surprisingly uninteresting. It starts with a wooden frame – seemingly crafted better than the reed blocks – to which are attached what appears to be heavy pleated cardboard reinforced at the top and bottom with a light metal tape. That’s all there is (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The Naked Bellows
But cardboard? That is not what I expected. “Cardboard” is something your third-grader uses to make a bulletin-board project, or something the laundry stuffs in your folded shirt to keep it nicely creased. “Cardboard” even sounds cheap.
I’m not sure, however, what I did expect. I guess I assumed that the bellows were made of Fine Corinthian Leather, or something exotic. Or at least from fabric: maybe there was a species of special silk worms in a closely guarded Italian garden who spun stiff bellows fabric somewhere. Maybe bellows were made of classier material in higher quality instruments?
But a search on the Internet revealed nothing but cardboard. Oh, your bellows might be lined with fabric, but there was just plain mundane cardboard beneath. There were a couple of concertina manufacturers who said they used leather bellows, but cardboard reigned supreme in ‘cordeenland. A search on “leather accordion bellows” found plenty of leather bellows straps, and leather bellows trim – but nothing but plain utilitarian cardboard for the bellows folds themselves. As Jim Descanio, proprietor of the highly regarded Fisarmonica Shop in Chicopee, MA tells me, “A quality so called cardboard has been used in accordion bellows construction for some 100 years now. The quality depends on the fabric glued on it. And the quality of the metal bellows & goatskin corners. Even the new models & digitals have bellows of this construction.”
Well, there you go. Doesn’t matter if you shell out ten grand for your Scandalli Super VI Extreme Double Tone Chamber LMMH 120: you’re still essentially getting cardboard bellows.
The bellows in the Silvertone has no fabric lining – it’s raw cardboard. But it actually seems very well made – far better than the reed banks. But after a bit of research, I realize I shouldn’t be surprised. Apparently, bellows are frequently made in bulk by 3rd party providers – not the company making the rest of the instrument. Indeed, in this instrument the frame still looks pristine, and the cardboard shows little to no wear. It’s in remarkably good shape for an accordion that’s easily sixty years old and has been exhumed from a closet in a high-humidity beach community – I would have expected the bellows to swell with moisture and fall apart in my hands. The metal tape around the folds shows no sign of scuffing, the kind you’d normally get from repeatedly squeezing the bellows across your jeans. The connective gunk in the four corners of each fold hasn’t deteriorated at all. These are really nice bellows.
Then I realize why. Little Billy hadn’t practiced.
One more section remains: the button box. The first thing to do is to remove the left-hand strap that keeps your hands pasted to the buttons. On every accordion I’ve ever seen, you accomplish this by turning a little tightening wheel in reverse until the strap falls out.
And once it does, I remove the 4 tiny screws in the rectangular panel covering the button assembly. It falls out easily. I put the pins in the jar.
On one side of the assembly I find two more reed blocks – well, that makes sense; these are the reeds for the bass. There are 12 reeds on each side of each block: given the Stradella system’s stingy allowance of only a major 7th in the bass, it’s pretty much what I expected, now that I’m an expert on accordion guts. The Silvertone has a single bass register, and when I press it, it moves a spring-tension lever that slides a bar underneath the blocks – apparently opening the air flow to one or the other. The reeds are larger here, as befits the bass tones they produce – and in worse shape than their treble cousins on the right-hand side. Some of the leathers don’t close at all; when I commit a mortal sin and touch one of them, it falls right off.
You were right, Phebe. I’m sorry.
But it’s the other side that is most intriguing. Here is the assembly that controls the bass buttons, and I’m almost at a loss for a way to describe them. First of all, they’re 100% different from the rods and pallets on the treble side. There are two rows of them, top and bottom. The rods on the top row are angled; the rods on the bottom row actually originate on top and reach down. (Fig. 4) It looks vaguely menacing. It’s easy to imagine it stories-high, like something out of Fritz Lang’s discomfiting 1927 movie “Metropolis”, with terrified workers dodging the plunging rods.
There are no pallets – on the top row, there’s just a series of flat metal “hands” with little “fingers” protruding beneath them – but the number of fingers per hand varies. Behind them, there are narrower hands with even fewer fingers. On the bottom row, the hands are much narrower, and they only have one finger apiece. “Hands” and “Fingers” are my terms. I have no idea what they’re called by those savants who know what they’re doing.
Figure 4.Terror Beneath the Buttons
I only have a vague idea of how it works. When I press a button on the fundamental row, one or more hands on the bottom drop down. Presumably, they open the wind window for a given reed. As I move from button to button, some fingers drop down without a hand – apparently they’re invoked separately. I also discover a logical pattern for which fingers descend when I move up the circle of 5ths. For example, pressing the ‘C’ fundamental shoves down three buttons and three fingers: the one below the ‘C’, the ‘C’ way down in the counterbass, and the ‘B#” up on the high end. Pressing the fundamental ‘G’ pushes down the low ‘G’ on the counterbass and the ‘F-double sharp’ up on the other limits of the button board. OK – so, possessed of Spock-like logic as I am, I figure that I’m activating multiple reeds in order to get the proper sound for each register. The problem is, moving the register switch bar doesn’t seem to vary the bar selection.
Things get even more complicated when I press the chord buttons. When I press the button for a C-major chord, for example, a smaller top-row hand drops down: it has 3 fingers – but 12 other fingers drop down independent of the hand! A C7 chord involves a big hand, a little hand, and 25 fingers!
How did they figure this out?
I’m impressed! And all of a sudden, I realize that this much maligned instrument is a very significant testament to human invention! This is an intricate device — It took major brains to invent the ‘cordeen! This wasn’t just plucking a reed from the pond and blowing on it – it took careful planning, logic, and highly evolved skill. Accordions shouldn’t be considered simple peasant instruments at all: even this low-end Silvertone looks like the work of an elderly old-world craftsman. They should advertise ‘cordeens alongside the snooty watch ads in the Wall Street Journal!
Musicians laud Mr.Boehm for his flute innovations and Adolphe Sax for enabling Bill Clinton’s other performances – so why do we not know the identity of Dr. Frankenstein of the ‘Cordeen? He had to be, like, really smart – a stable genius! Maybe it actually was Leonardo? Maybe Leonardo traveled from Florence to Castelfidardo (only a 54 hour walk according to Google Maps) and forgot his drawings in the palazzo library, leaving them to be discovered centuries later….?
OK, it probably wasn’t DaVinci at all. The accordion seems to have evolved, rather than to have been invented. The instrument that crawled out of the primeval music slime and started mutating was the Chinese “Cheng”, the first known instrument to make sound by using vibrating reeds in multiple pipes.[x] So stop crabbing about the Chinese manufacture of those Hohners and Weltmeisters. The Chinese were there first.
The autopsy was over. Even if DaVinci hadn’t been the inventor, he was right about needing to understand what was under the skin. I had a much deeper understanding of the ‘cordeen now, and I am convinced it really has helped me improve my playing. Just don’t ask me why.
It was time to re-assemble the corpse. I reached for my pin jar.
All of the pins were different sizes. I had no idea where anything went. I came to the inescapable conclusion that the Silvertone was going to remain dismembered forever.
Then, again, Leonardo didn’t put the bodies back together, either.
 I was later to peer into the belly of my regular instrument: with far more room inside, all the rods are straight
[i] Walter Issacson, Leonardo DaVinci, 2017,Chap. 27)
[viii]http://www.bradfordaccordionband.org.uk/hand-made-reeds/ — This site has everything you ever wanted to know about reeds, and is something you might want to read before buying a quality accordion
Copyright © 2018 Stephen A. Hirsch